Two October evenings in 1949 brought together an alcoholic war hero and a fiery young evangelist. From then on, neither would be the same.
The preaching in that rented circus tent in Los Angeles changed Louis Zamperini, then 32 — who put away the bottle forever and devoted the rest of his life to Christian testimony and good works.
And those Los Angeles nights also changed the preacher, Billy Graham, and the future course of American evangelicalism as well. In Graham’s autobiography, “Just As I Am,” he calls that chapter of his life “Watershed.”
On Christmas Day, a movie directed by Angelina Jolie about Zamperini’s extraordinary survival amid the horrors of Japanese POW camps opens in theaters. “Unbroken,” is based on the award-winning book by Laura Hillenbrand.
The film version of “Unbroken, however, ends before he reaches Graham’s tent revival, the climactic chapter of Hillenbrand’s best-seller.
Yet it was this eight-week sin-slaying marathon where the story of “Billy Graham as an icon begins,” said Duke Divinity School historian Grant Wacker, author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” published just before Graham’s 96th birthday last month.
On the night of Oct. 23, Zamperini heard Graham say: “If you suffer, I’ll give you the grace to go forward.”
Hillenbrand, drawing on more than 70 interviews with Zamperini for “Unbroken,” tells how he recalled all the miraculous moments when his body might have broken and yet did not.
But on that night, Zamperini’s broken soul was touched. He walked down the sawdust aisle toward the Graham.
Over the next six decades, hundreds of thousands heard those words and did the same.
“God has spoken to you,” Graham said then, and ever after. “You come on.”
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